Finding Joy in Teaching During 2020

As I was planning my course for fall 2020, I spent a lot of time worrying about what I could offer the group of 21 first-year students who would be (virtually) entering a classroom to purportedly learn about writing. My worry was not about my ability to teach writing, but rather about my ability to teach writing in a moment (or an eon, so it feels) of extreme uncertainty and precarity. I myself felt precarious and uncertain (see previous post). Amidst all those feelings, I wanted the course to be meaningful beyond the mere utility of learning to write more effectively, so I tried to make it into a low stress space both for taking intellectual risks or trying new things and for just learning how to be a college student.

The first hurdle for both myself and the students was adjusting to an online college classroom. Teaching online was new to me and attending college online was new to the students. All of us had to iron out some kinks in our Zoom and Canvas practice during the first couple weeks, however, I believe that the online format did not ultimately end up detracting from our course. [In fact, my ability to wear comfy dinosaur PJ pants while teaching was a noted improvement over in-person teaching.] I chose to hold only one synchronous session a week, as opposed to the three I would have had on campus. This was ultimately the right balance, especially since most of their other courses were entirely asynchronous. The students really valued having a weekly time to come together, chat, ask questions and do group work, and I enjoyed their collegiality and the opportunity to hear their speaking voices and, sometimes, see their faces.

The course title was officially “Writing in Environmental Studies”, however we decided to focus explicitly on environmental justice. Not only is this focus critically important, it also created space for students and myself to delve deeper into recent and current events, making the course more meaningful and timely. While we spent some class time discussing environmental justice at the outset, most of the work on that topic was done by students through their own targeted reading and research and through small group conferences with me. Coming out of high school, the students were really excited to finally get to steer their own learning ship by specifically investigating environmental justice topics that were important and interesting to them.

Screen capture of our course blog, sites.uw.edu/hollism

I was very happy with the two major assignments we worked on this term and was especially impressed by the quality of work that this group of first-year students was able to produce in this trying era. The first assignment was an op-ed about an ongoing environmental justice issue. The second was was a research paper on environmental activism, where students picked a topic around which there is a history of activism, analyzed how environmental justice was (or was not) incorporated into activism around that issue, and explored the stakes and stakeholders involved. Since students all chose different topics, they were able to teach each other (and me!) about a wide range of issues such as oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Clayoquot Sound protests, gentrification of the International District in Seattle, racial injustice in New Orleans in the context of Hurricane Katrina, the longstanding consequences of uranium mining in the US Southwest, and the conservation of mountain gorillas in Rwanda (non exhaustive list). The students complemented these formal writing assignments with public-facing blog posts about their research and news items.

In addition to the work we did together around environmental justice, I wanted to make sure that these first-year students had additional tools to help them succeed in college. These skills are often referred to as the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum consists of the unspoken or untaught skills that students need for success, but that they are never given a formal opportunity to learn. To address this, I created modules to talk about imposter syndrome, how to get involved with research, how to find advising in your department, demystifying academic titles, and searching for scholarships. I also invited a librarian and a counsellor from the career center to come visit us during our synchronous sessions, so the students could become more familiar with those resources. Looking back, I wish that I had spent more time actually talking about these topics with students, rather than relegating most of them to online-only modules. On the other hand, we had so much else to cover in limited time. I did not get much feedback from students about the hidden curriculum items, but I hope they are able to carry that knowledge forward with them!

I loved getting to know these students over the course of 11 weeks. The online environment certainly made that process more challenging at first, but we ended the term having made genuine connections and having learned a lot from one another. We ended our time together with a virtual celebration of all that the students accomplished over the term. We blasted music through Zoom and I embarrassed myself by being repeatedly murdered by students in rounds of Among Us. I have never laughed so hard with students before.

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